411 on Cracked Tomatoes

I was out of town Wednesday night and came home to three inches of rain in the rain gauge and a handful of cracked tomatoes.  The two items are related.

Why Tomatoes Crack: To grow well and fruit profusely, tomatoes need even, consistent moisture. I water tomato plants during dry periods to encourage fruiting and healthy growth. But when Mother Nature dumps a bucket of moisture on the ground, the plant naturally takes it up and the fruits crack. Their skins can’t grow fast enough to take in the extra moisture. Cracking is most common with a heavy rain after a long dry spell, though this was not the case here because we have had an unusually rainy August. As typically happens, the fruits closest to ripeness cracked.  The cracks in the fruits provide an entry point for bacteria and fungi, and typically the fruit will rot quickly—in fact, I tossed one really rotten tomato before taking the picture.

Can you prevent cracking? You can’t prevent cracking from extreme storms, but you can prevent losing tomatoes due to cracking, by harvesting tomatoes most susceptible to cracking. Green or very unripe tomatoes are less likely to crack, so picking those that are ripe or nearly so before a big storm is a good way to prevent cracking. Since I was away during the last storm, I picked a lot of ripe or nearly ripe fruit right after I got home. You can prevent cracking if the problem is dryness by watering regularly.  You also can reduce cracking by growing tomatoes in raised beds, which drain more thoroughly than in-ground gardens, and by applying a layer of compost or other mulch to keep soil evenly moist in dry periods.

Are there tomatoes that don’t crack? Yes, there are some varieties that resist cracking. (Those that crack the most tend to be heirloom varieties and large tomatoes.) You can find a long list here of crack-resistant varieties. Popular varieties that crack less include Arkansas Traveler, Celebrity, Big Boy, Big Beef, Summer Sweet, Sungold and Yellow Pear. If cracking tends to be a problem with your tomatoes, you may want to choose a crack-resistant type.

What about calcium and cracking? Calcium helps tomatoes regulate their intake of moisture, and a shortage of calcium in the soil is also linked to blossom end rot, another really discouraging tomato problem. Some gardeners add crushed eggshells to the planting hole, antacid tablets or a commercial calcium to increase the calcium available to plants. Consider a soil test before you heavily supplement the soil.

We have more rain in the forecast for the next couple of days, so I will be harvesting more tomatoes today. How are your tomatoes doing during this rainy period?

Orange is the New Purple

I have always loved purple in the garden for its deep hue and because many plants I like for other reasons (baptisia and anise hyssop, for example) have purple flowers. But this year, I decided to grow a few orange annuals, and I may have to change my new favorite color. I first heard about the power of orange during a garden talk by Eric Johnson, one of our Northern Gardener columnists.

This ‘Torch’ Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) was grown from seed. I love the bright orange, especially on a gloomy, rainy day.

According to Eric, orange is a color that brightens up drab spaces, and it certainly is working in my patio/vegetable garden area. On the site of a former garage, I’m growing vegetables in raised beds. The vegetables are, of course, mostly green, and the perennials I planted this spring are still getting a foothold in the clay soil and aren’t blooming much. I have a ‘Blue Heaven’ morning glory that is covering a trellis and part of the back fence, but that hasn’t bloomed at all yet — so again, more green.

Marigolds pair well with this yellow-centered calibrachoa, which is called Superbells® Over Easy™a new plant from Proven Winners.

Enter orange, in the form of several containers filled with orange marigolds, orange pansies and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). I bought the pansies as a six-pack early this spring, but grew the others from seed. The ‘Torch’ tithonia came from Seed Savers Exchange and has been a magnet for monarch butterflies in my backyard.  The plants are more than 4-feet tall, with large leaves and several flowers per plant. Next year, I may plant them as a low hedge along one of my fences because they are big and pretty.

The marigolds are also from Seed Savers, a variety from the 1930s called Starfire Signet. The blooms are in shades of yellow, orange and red and they grow at least 12 inches tall. We ran an article on marigolds in the May/June issue of Northern Gardener and that got me inspired to use more marigolds and to grow them from seed. They are very easy to grow and the results are warm and fun.

I may have bought this marigold as a plant. It’s super pretty though.

The last orange annual I’ve been growing is an old-fashioned nasturtium called Lady Bird. This one has not done as well as the marigolds, but in a few of the containers the orange-yellow blooms are adding to the show.

Orange can be too much if you have a lot of other colors in the garden–especially reds and pinks. In this area, I’ve got mostly green with some white blooms and (of course) a touch of purple. So far, it’s been a fun departure from my usual color palette.

What’s your favorite color to brighten the garden?

I paired these orange pansies with a Ginger Wine ninebark in a container. I love the ninebark and will be planting it in the landscape this fall.

Growing Vegetables in Raised Beds (and What’s Going on With This Soil?)

One of my backyard gardens is on the site of a former garage. We removed the one-car garage last summer and replaced it with a larger building to store cars and tools. The site of the former garage is now where I grow vegetables in raised beds and am trying to grow some perennials, shrubs and vines on the extremely poor soil.

The tomato has a fruit, but it’s so small, you can tell its struggling. Photo take July 15.

Raised beds can be a terrific way to grow vegetables, but as I am finding out, your beds are only as good as the soil in them. Witness the photo at left. The bed this sad tomato was planted in was one of two that were filled with a soil mix that was labeled as being specifically for raised beds, including those with vegetables. I planted beans, parsley, tomatoes, squash and marigolds in the two beds—in late May/early June. For weeks, they have sat there. And sat there.

With the exception of marigolds, which seemed to be growing a tiny bit and are flowering, none of the plants were thriving—or even growing much. On many of them, the leaves turned yellow. Nothing has up and died yet, but they sure have been struggling. Witness the photo below, a small raised bed (with less sun than other raised beds) where I used an organic bagged soil mix and some manure. These tomatoes and basil plants were roughly the same size as the ones in the other beds when they were planted a few weeks ago, yet they are growing, producing flowers and fruit and generally doing what a plant should do. (Update: Since I wrote this post a week or so ago, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to lash their trellis to the fence.)

Planted in a bagged soil mix, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to tie them to the trellis. Photo taken July 15.

So what’s up? It could be the plants have gotten too much water, but given the size of the beds and the dryness of the top 3 inches of the soil, I doubt that. I checked out this article on what yellow leaves on plants means and my yellow leaves don’t perfectly match any of the pictures—though they are close on a couple of them.  A couple of weeks ago, in absolute frustration, I decided to add some more nitrogen to see if that helped. One bed got composted manure; the other got liquid fertilizer. The plants have grown more since then—one of the beans has finally latched onto the trellis I want it to climb and a few bean flowers have emerged.

I also sent a sample of the soil to the U of M Soil Testing Lab to find out exactly what kind of soil I’ve got here. (I contacted the landscaping firm that sold me the soil, but have not heard back from them.) The U turned around the soil test results quickly and I found out that while the mix had a good percentage of organic matter (12.5 percent), it had sky-high levels of potassium (that’s the K in the N-P-K ratio on most fertilizer bags.) Potassium’s main role in plant growth is to regulate how other nutrients are taken up by the plant and to regulate certain processes. Too much potassium in the soil will interfere with up-take of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. The U recommended I add nitrogen but nothing else to the soil to improve plant growth.

One of the main reasons to grow vegetables in raised beds is that you can control the soil better. In my case, the dreadful soil that was already on the site made growing vegetables impossible without raised beds. If the beds are tall (mine are about 14 inches tall), they should be treated like a container, with regular watering and fertilizing to enrich the soil. Needless to say, come fall, I will be adding leaves, compost and manure to all my beds in hopes of getting the soil in better shape for next year.

Do you grow vegetables in raised beds? What’s your favorite soil mix?

Quilts and Gardens Go Together

For the past three years, my cousin has been among the organizers of an unusual garden tour in Tracy, MN. The tour—officially the Tracy Area Garden Party—combines two art forms that often go together—quilting and gardening. Though I’ve made a few simple quilts, I’m decidedly no quilter, but many gardeners are also expert quilters and many quilters are also darn good gardeners.

Grandmother’s Garden quilt in a garden on the Tracy Garden Tour.

This year, I was able to visit Tracy for the tour and Jolynn (my cousin) took me around to see not only the six tour gardens, but to visit several other garden sites in the area as well as a terrific nursery that serves Tracy, Marshall and the rest of southwestern Minnesota. This year, the tour focused on gardens in Balaton, MN, about 20 miles west of Tracy. Balaton has a beautiful lake and two of the gardens were right on the water.

A comfy front porch with a sweet hydrangea and a pretty floral quilt on display.

On the tour, each of the gardens is decorated with quilts, which are positioned to show off the colors of both the quilt and the gardens. Sometimes the gardener is also the one displaying the quilts, but all of the quilters are from the area.

Susan Mitzner displayed the quilt at the top of this post, called Grandmother’s Flower Garden, over a fence near one of the flower borders at her rural Balaton farm. Susan pieced it with some help from her grandchildren and quilted it as well. Another quilt of hers  hung on a garden shed right behind a bed filled with peonies, lilies and other sun-loving flowers.

A few things I noticed about these southwestern Minnesota gardens:

  • A very, very small part of one of the gardens we visited in Balaton, MN.

    They are BIG! Many of the gardens we toured looked to be an acre or more in size, even those in town. Many were edged with garden beds with turf grass in the middle. Gardens of that size give the gardener the ability to use really big plants, which is a blessing. Mowing as much turf as some of the yards we saw have would require a riding mower or an army of teenagers looking to make money.

    With all the sun these gardens have, lilies thrived.
  • They are SUNNY! We visited one gorgeous garden (not on the tour this year, but in previous years) that I would call a shade garden. But all the others had lots and lots of sun. One had many, many oak trees, but still large swaths of sunny spaces. As a result, we saw some great-looking vegetable gardens—large and thriving. There also were lots of lilies and bee-balm in the gardens—both sun-loving plants.
  • I loved the way these quilts swayed in the breeze. Behind them, you can see one of the impressive vegetable gardens on the tour.
  • This teapot on a plate complemented the greenery around it.

    They were filled with CHARMING DETAILS. From large signs advertising “Balaton Specialties” to washboards to teacups filled with succulents to interestingly colored or shaped pots, the gardens included fun details that reflected the personalities of the gardeners.

My apologies to the quilter. I forgot to take a picture of the tag so I would know who made this gorgeous quilt, which was one of my favorites from the tour.

At the end of the tour, pie and ice cream was provided, courtesy of St. Mary’s Church in Tracy, which is known for its great pies. After an afternoon of touring gardens and admiring quilts, a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie and ice cream was a real treat. The tour has been held three years in a row, and I’m hoping they do it again next year. I want to bring my sister, who is a quilter, along!

A Legacy in Trees

 

The plantings at Brenton Arboretum take advantage of the rolling hills of the property.

You never know the power of a gift given or received. I thought about this a couple of weeks ago during my first trip in many years to the Des Moines, Iowa, area for a meeting of GWA, an organization for garden communicators. The gift was a book on tree identification, given to Iowa banker Buz Brenton some time in the 1990s by his sister. Brenton was in the family business—banking—but enjoyed walks on farmland the family had owned since the 1850s. With his tree identification book in hand, Brenton gained a deeper appreciation for the oaks, maples and hickories that dotted the rolling hills of the farm.

When he retired from banking, he decided he wanted to do something to help others understand the importance and value of trees. His family still had the farm his great, great, great grandfather had homesteaded in the 1850s and the 143-acres of rolling hills provided the perfect setting for an arboretum. The Brenton Arboretum is truly that — a place about trees, for observing trees, learning about trees, appreciating trees. Unlike the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which has expanses of display gardens as well as trees, Brenton has groves of trees with very little garden space between them.

Sweet bay magnolia were in bloom in early June.

Since its founding in 1997, more than 2,500 trees of 500 species have been planted at the arboretum. It has collections of such midwestern favorites as crab apple trees, oaks, maples and the under-planted Kentucky coffeetree. Designed by Anthony Tyznik, former landscape architect at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, the arboretum takes advantage of the rolling hills on which it is set.  Paths for walking (even dog walking!) snake through the arboretum, giving visitors time to slow down and appreciate the landscape.

Tired and hot garden writers took refuge under the green roof of the picnic pavilion at Brenton Arboretum.

In addition to a visitor’s center, where classes, weddings and other events are held, the arboretum has a picnic shelter on the grounds with a green roof and a play area for children to explore nature.

The day we visited it was very hot and sunny in Des Moines, but as we walked around the paths, I kept thinking this would be a great place for a visit in fall. The arboretum is located outside of Dallas Center, Iowa, just about 20 minutes north of Des Moines. If you decide to visit the arboretum, be sure to stop at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden as well.

A metal sculpture called “St. Francis and the Birds” stands on one of the arboretum’s hills.
I loved the shape of this Homestead buckeye tree.

Garden Planning: The Questions to Ask

I have a hard time visualizing how drawings on paper will look in three dimensions and in real space, which means my garden beds get done and re-done, sometimes on the fly, as I try to get the look in the ground to match the one in my head. In the past, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a local landscaper who I trusted to take my ideas and give them an appropriate shape that looked good in both two and three dimensions. From there, I would revise the layout and reassess the plants.

The formal garden at Rosenborg Castle gardens in Copenhagen. My garden will not look like this.

With our new house, I paid to have a one-time consultation with a garden designer (something I recommend most gardeners do before starting a larger project) and she reinforced some of the ideas I had and gave me some good suggestions for bed shapes and plant materials. I’m using those ideas to plan my back gardens on my own. Next year, we will re-do some of the sidewalks and stairs in our front, which have drainage issues, and at that point, I’ll probably hire a designer to give shape to the front. For now, I’m on my own.

Before getting too deeply into garden planning, you have to to ask the big questions. Here are some  I’ve been asking myself over the past year, and a few of the answers I’ve come up with.

Here’s the dream: a secluded spot and a nice chair. This was taken in Toronto during a Garden Bloggers Fling in 2015.

How will the landscape be used? Our yard basically has three sections and I see them as having three purposes. The front faces the street and I want it to be welcoming and to fit in with the other landscapes on the block, many of which have big trees and more defined spaces than we have. I don’t see us using that space for sitting outside much, though I’m open to adding a front patio area in the future. For now, I’m adding and subtracting plants from the existing bed and we are putting our bird feeder (and probably a bird bath) on the east-front side of the house. This was a purely practical decision. There’s a small window in the house that I can use to watch the birds, and as my husband says, “where do you want the bird poop?”

The backyard has two sections, a patio area that faces what will be a mostly edible garden, in raised beds, with some native plants around the beds. This is a spot for entertaining or having morning coffee. It needs some soft screening from the alley and neighbors and a big table with an umbrella. The raised beds are in and planted. The third section is between the house and the garage. It is screened on three sides by buildings and, because we are very close to our neighbors back entry, needs more screening on the fourth side. My hope is to fill this with lots of plants and turn it into a quiet garden for reflection.

The Grand Allee in Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. My garden will not look like this.

How will you get from space to space? We did some work on the paths last year, adding a brick path from the patio to the back gate. We walk that path several times a day and are very happy with how it turned out. We need to create a path from the back steps into the quiet garden and that will likely be done in grass with a brick edging. That’s on my to-do list for later this summer. A path from front yard to back on the east side is also needed and will be done in the future. On the west side, we have a narrow sidewalk and no option to do much about that.

What about water? There are two questions here, really. How will you get hoses from point A to point B to water plants, but more importantly, how will water flow be handled. We have a slightly soggy area in the quiet garden and I need to adjust both the outflow from our sump pump (which runs only during major wet periods, such as last month) and a downspout. This may take some engineering, but I don’t want people to be tripping over hoses and downspouts, so it need attention.

Cool little statue in a formal garden in Toronto. Likely will not be in my garden.

What’s your style? Several years ago, I read a very good garden design book that recommended people name their garden to help them get a feel for their style. Facetiously, I suggested “mole manor” as the name for our former yard, which had its share of critter issues. I have no idea what I would call this garden—Farm in the City? Urban Refuge? Howdy, Neighbor? I’m stumped. Our house is a 1939 bungalow, so something on the cottage-y end of design might work. I also like to use native plants, when possible. This is a question I’m still pondering.

What questions would you ask before designing a new garden?

What!? A USDA Zone 6 Plant Thrives in Minnesota?

Hey, it’s back! Labeled USDA Zone 6 hardy, this hyssop survived winter in my zone 4 garden.

Pictured above is an anise hyssop that I planted last summer for a little color with absolutely no hopes that it would survive the winter.  Yet, come April, it was sprouting its pretty chartreuse leaves and getting ready for another season of bloom.

The plant is ‘Golden Jubilee’ anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’), a 2003 All-American Selections winner that has pretty purple bottlebrush flowers and is very attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s listed as being hardy to USDA Zone 6 on the tag it came with, though I’ve found several other sources that says it is zone 5 hardy. (For reference, I live in zone 4, which covers the southern two-thirds or so of Minnesota.) Even if it was zone 5, I would not have expected it to survive the winter of 2016-17 because of the lack of snow cover. We did have a warm winter overall, but the temperature sunk to below -20 F in December, which should have been cold enough to ice even a zone 5 plant.

This is what it looks like in the summer. Photo courtesy of All-America Selections.

But like all politics, all weather—and all gardening—is local. In my garden, this plant faces south. I live in the urban heat island of St. Paul. The plant lies within 5 feet of the foundation of my house, which may emanate some heat. The extremely cold days in December came right after a snow storm, so the plant’s roots had some cover during the worst of the winter. Clearly, the local conditions were warm enough to get it through the winter.

It may also be that the zone 6 rating given the plant by this grower is conservative. That’s one thing to keep in mind when choosing plants—zone ratings are as much art as science and some companies are conservative in their ratings while others are more optimistic. Your local conditions may be warmer or cooler than the averages for your zone, too. Choose plants not exclusively by the numbers but by the local conditions.  I bought the anise hyssop plants later in the summer. They were on sale and I expected they would be annuals. This brings to mind a good rule for gardeners who want to “push their zone.” Never choose a plant you can’t afford to lose.

Whether it was luck, a warm winter or a too-conservative rating, I’m happy to have this cheerful plant back for another year.